Six-session program designed to allow potential administrators to ‘test drive’ life in Catholic school leadership

BIRMINGHAM — Emily Wesley always had a feeling in the back of her mind that she might be called to be a principal.

Noreen Serra did, too, even pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership — that is, “until life got in the way” and her duties as a teacher and a mom put those plans on hold.

Now, thanks to a new initiative of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Office of Catholic Schools, Wesley, Serra and a host of other local Catholic school teachers are getting a chance to test those waters in a low-stress, obligation-free environment.

Fresh on the heels of the release of a brand-new vision for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Detroit, the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools was busy putting into practice the first pieces of the broad plan with the launch of the all-new Principal Formation Institute, designed to give current Catholic school educators a taste of life in Catholic school leadership.

“I always had this feeling that administration might be my thing, so we’re getting the nudge to find out sooner rather than later,” said Wesley, who teaches fifth grade at Our Lady of Victory School in Northville.

On Feb. 8, approximately 26 teachers, assistant principals and Catholic school employees gathered at Holy Name Parish in Birmingham to attend the first session of the Principal Formation Institute, a six-session training seminar that walks potential school administrators through the ins and outs of the job.

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, leads the first session of the Principal Formation Institute on Feb. 8 at Holy Name Parish in Birmingham.

For the teachers, it was a chance to “test drive” life as a Catholic school principal. For administrators, it was an opportunity to “interview” potential applicants even before a possible position opens up.

For the Archdiocese of Detroit, it was the first step toward “building a strong bench” of strong Catholic school leaders to pass on the faith to the next generation.

“We started this when I was superintendent back in (the Archdiocese of) Denver because we realized that if we don’t build a bench, we’re going to have problems,” said Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit. “Those problems are going to manifest themselves when it comes to core leadership. There needs to be planning when it comes to how we can have effective teachers in our schools, and certainly effective principals.”

Kijewski offered an overview of the program, which covers everything from the Church’s teachings on Catholic education to the role of the principal, from daily duties to building a culture of faith.

“The one person in the building who really has the biggest influence over student academic achievement is the principal,” Kijewski said. “They set the tone, the tenor, the cadence. They do all the hiring. They wear many hats. It really takes a person of great talent who can take things in stride.”

Often, new school pastors and principals come into the job without knowing what to expect, Kijewski said, which can lead to longer adjustment periods and higher turnover rates. Especially because Catholic school principals and administrators are ultimately responsible not only for the academic achievement of their students, but their faith formation as well, it’s imperative that principals have a strong understanding of how to be a spiritual leader, as well as a competent administrator.

“This is to make sure we have the quality leadership we need in our schools,” Kijewski said. “The archbishop in Unleash the Gospel talks about this, that we have to have a radical missionary conversion in our schools, and we need to make sure we have the leadership to sustain them.”

Emily Wesley, a fifth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Victory School in Northville, talks about her background in Catholic education during a meet-and-greet with other teachers.

During the first session, attendees — who were nominated by their own principals or Catholic school leaders — learned about the temperament needed for a Catholic school principal, as well as “potential blockages and blind spots” a school leader might encounter.

In the following sessions, which will take place over the next several months, topics will cover a wide spectrum, from budgeting to spiritual leadership to how to set goals for strategic planning.

Before the session, members of the cohort were asked to read Gravissimum educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education; as well as a document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, “The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.”

For homework, teachers were assigned to read Timothy J. Cook’s “Architects of Catholic Culture” and John Michael Miller’s “The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools.”

For Beth Lechy, a fifth grade teacher at St. Charles Borromeo School in Newport, the session was about getting her feet wet and stepping out in faith to try something new.

“Our interim principal was nudging me along to attend this today, so I prayed a lot about it, and this is part of my discernment process. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, and I’m open to whatever God has in store,” Lechy said.

While Kijewski acknowledged that not all of the 26 educators in the room would go on to become principals, he likened the opportunity to a “two-way interview process.”

Twenty-six teachers, assistant principals and Catholic school employees attended the first of six sessions of the Principal Formation Institute.

Kristy McMillan, a kindergarten teacher at St. John Paul II School in Wyandotte, said she once considered pursuing a career in administration, but a prior experience teaching in Chicago public schools initially soured her on the idea, until she heard of the Principal Formation Institute.

“After watching what administrators in Chicago public schools dealt with on a daily basis, I told my principal that I had no interest in being an administrator anymore, even though I thought I might,” McMillan said. “But my principal said, ‘I think you might want to go to this and see what administration in a Catholic school is all about.’”

The difference in teaching at a Catholic school is what inspired Elizabeth Gabrish, a first-grade teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Plymouth, to give the institute a try.

“I am finishing up my administrative degree through Marygrove College. I’ll be done in April,” Gabrish said. “I am just blown away by the archdiocese and the archbishop’s Unleash the Gospel. I just feel it’s like the Holy Spirit moving through our schools. It’s like the wind just sweeping through all of us. I just feel very blessed to be part of our archdiocese at this time in history. I’m here to listen to God’s request to trust in Him for what happens next.”

To learn more about the Principal Formation Institute, email or call (313) 237-4661.